If you weren’t a close follower of French politics in the mid-to-late ‘00s, you probably won’t recognize the specific plot points in “The Conquest,” a grounded docudrama about President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ascension to his country’s presidency. But the mechanics will be as familiar as an episode of “The West Wing” – and just as sharp.
Hypocrisy, deal-making and scandal are endemic to politics, their motivations and machinations needing no translation. “The Conquest,” which opens in Palm Beach County theaters on Friday, is a feast of these false fronts, backstage rivalries, spewn invectives and murky quid pro quos that channel the collective cynicism of modern politicking. As played by veteran actor Denis Podalydes (a dead ringer for the handsome politico), Sarkozy is a recognizable archetype: an obsessive workaholic and ferocious pit bull who will do, say, and accept anything to win – except for the desertion of his wife, Cecilia, who leaves Sarkozy mid-campaign to live with her lover, Richard Attias. But even this last inconvenient truth is rectified by Sarkozy not out of love for his spouse but because his wife’s absence is bad P.R. leading up to an election.
Written and directed by Xavier Durringer, a veteran of the French stage, “The Conquest” largely avoids melodramatic conjecture, sticking to a just-the-facts style rooted in real-life reportage. Thus, the only moment that has the stench of phoniness is the single domestic clash between Nicolas and Cecilia, its stilted dialogue only partially masked by Nicola Piovani’s phantasmagoric score. But the rest of the movie feels transcribed from actual conversations involving Sarkozy, Jacques Chirac (a scowly Bernard Le Coq) Dominique de Villepin (Samuel Labarthe) and others. There’s a caustic wit to their verbal spats that, again, suggests the far-reaching influence of Aaron Sorkin on quasi-fictional political discourse.
Underlying all of the Beltway bravado is Cecilia’s separation from her husband, which continues to nag at Nicolas even when he surges in the polls. Durringer dramatizes this separation brilliantly and subtly by phasing Cecilia out of the movie’s own narrative, relegating her to a campaign ornament – an after-thought in her husband’s grand scheme.
Ceclila is not positioned as an emotionally ignored sufferer, and her leaving is hardly the result of a feminized woman’s self-actualization; after all, she had a history of infidelity prior to her marriage to Sarkozy. But the movie does highlight the shallow narcissism and myopic worldview that has led so many politicians to ignore their spouses and children in pursuit of big brass rings. This applies across nations: In a recent issue of The New Yorker, a former Newt Gingrich staffer told the reporter that Callista Gingrinch told Newt, “Either go on this vacation [to the Greek isles in 2011, when Gingrich’s campaign was imploding], or we’re done.” Newt obeyed, despite a vast media outcry about the timing of the cruise. And look where he is now -- one of the few GOP nominees still standing.